St. Paul Promise Neighborhood hurt by federal snub but not halted
Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, February 11, 2013 – Supporters of an ambitious St. Paul education initiative are pledging to keep it going after a second snub from the federal government.
A partnership of local agencies and nonprofits launched the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood in 2010 with a $500,000 federal planning grant and support from local benefactors.
Modeled on New York City’s famous Harlem Children’s Zone, the effort seeks to beef up support services for kids and families in a poverty-plagued 250-block area of the city’s Frogtown neighborhood. Since its launch, $1.7 million has poured into the initiative.
Late last year, supporters learned the U.S. Department of Education rejected St. Paul’s implementation grant application for a second year in a row.
Now, they are saying they likely will have to scale back their vision of “cradle to career” support for youngsters. But they won’t abandon efforts already under way.
“Getting the grant will have allowed us to do more faster, but this doesn’t change our mission at all,” said City Council Member Melvin Carter, an early supporter of the project.
Promise Neighborhood efforts across the country are based on the idea of removing the non-academic obstacles in the way of learning in high-poverty areas. The goal is to build “wraparound” support for children and thus chip away at the achievement gap between them and better-off peers.
In St. Paul, the city, school district and Ramsey County partnered with several nonprofits and St. Paul College.
Efforts centered on two elementary schools, Maxfield and Jackson. There, resource centers opened to get families a wide range of help, from food and clothing to tips on affordable housing, job hunting and helping out with homework.
Families also have received preschool scholarships with help from a separate federal grant. Last summer, the district hosted Freedom School, which combated summer learning loss through six additional weeks of school.
Jackie Turner, chief engagement officer for the school district, said the initiative’s main accomplishment so far is fostering a culture of support for the schools. Churches and nonprofits in the area have rallied for clothing and food drives; the two elementaries have seen an influx of volunteer tutors.
“The most important thing we have done is capture the imagination of the community we’re serving,” Carter said.
The initiative had to regroup when federal officials rejected its grant application in 2011, even as they awarded $28 million to a similar initiative, Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis.
Some supporters of the St. Paul program wonder if the U.S. Department of Education might have chosen to spread the grants around by passing up St. Paul yet again this winter in favor of applications from other parts of the country.
Kristine Martin, a vice president at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, said St. Paul’s application came several points shy of a perfect score. The only criticism was in a few instances what the grant writers called outcomes really were ongoing efforts.
Martin took over as interim head of the Promise Neighborhood after Executive Director Angelique Kedem resigned in December, shortly before the grant application’s rejection. The Education Department has not announced whether it will hold another application round this year.
Martin said the setback won’t sink the initiative.
“Every partner has said there’s a benefit to participating and supporting this effort,” she said.
Several key local backers already have committed to continue their funding. Expanding services into the middle and high schools likely will have to wait, Martin said.
St. Paul school board member John Brodrick is a lifelong resident of the neighborhood and a former Jackson student; he remembers going to the dentist at the school.
At times, he has wondered whether the partners are doing enough to get the word out and help residents understand what it means for them. But he said he is a strong supporter.
“The grand plan probably won’t come into place,” he said. “But can we still do some of the things we want? I think it behooves us to try.”
To Carter, the denied application presents an opportunity to inspire more buy-in in the neighborhood, where about half of households with children have annual incomes below $18,000.
Longtime residents have seen initiatives come and go, and they can be skeptical of pushes to overhaul the neighborhood, he said.
“Our biggest challenge is convincing folks our partners are really committed to keeping their promises,” he said. “We can show them now that commitment is not contingent on this being easy.”